The community policing strategy proved so effective that it has been adopted by about 70 percent of Colombia’s ethnic groups, said Fucai, a non-profit that works in the region. The organization has no age limits or gender requirements, and children as young as 14 can be seen carrying the arm-length sticks , which, in theory, are only used in self defense.
Nonviolence in a country armed to the teeth wasn’t a philosophical choice but a pragmatic gamble, Vitonas said
During the 1980s, some Nasa joined an armed self-defense group called Quintín Lame. But the force eventually went on the offensive, becoming another guerrilla actor in the nation’s bloody conflict.
“That was not a positive experience for us,” Vitonas said. “Having weapons only generated more bloodshed and we realized that arms were not the solution. We decided to fight for our rights within the Constitution and be part of the democratic process.”
Quintín Lame demobilized in 1991 in exchange for a role in the Constitutional Assembly, which gave the Nasa and other indigenous communities limited autonomy, and recognition of their tribal leadership and justice system. The four alleged FARC members captured last month, for example, were tried by an assembly of Nasa governors and sentenced to flogging.
The guard’s power caught national attention in 2004 when Vitonas and other leaders were kidnapped by the FARC. About 400 members of the guard gave chase. Acosta, who was part of the rescue party, remembers sleeping against trees and going hungry as they punched deep into the jungle. Soldiers made fun of them for venturing into FARC territory armed with nothing but sticks.
But eventually, about 150 guard members made it to the guerrilla encampment and freed the hostages. They pulled it off in less than 20 days and nobody was hurt — noteworthy in Colombia, where FARC hostages have been held for more than 13 years and rescue efforts often involve casualties.
Overwhelming force is part of the Indigenous Guard strategy, Acosta said.
“That day we went with 400 people,” he said. “But if that didn’t work, we would have come back with 10,000.”
That same year, the Indigenous Guard won Colombia’s prestigious National Peace Prize, sponsored by the United Nations, among others.
“It’s not a police structure, but a humanitarian mechanism of civil resistance,” the judges wrote. “It was created to defend the communities from all the parties that threaten them.”
The most recent threat came in early July, when the FARC’s 6th Front stepped up attacks on police and military installations inside Toribío. Stained-glass windows in the church were shot out when guerrillas missed the nearby police barracks. A wayward mortar landed in the community clinic seriously wounding four medics.
But the media only noticed when the Nasa began pushing out the police and military to keep from being caught in the crossfire, said Ruth Consuelo Chaparro with the Fucai non-profit.
“All they are trying to do is protect their lives and their territory,” she said. “But the media is painting them out to be a group of savages and terrorists who are threatening the military.”
Chaparro said the 1991 Constitution gives the Nasa the right to control their territory through the Indigenous Guard — something the government disputes.
The Nasa themselves are divided. Indigenous leaders in the beleaguered town of Miranda have said they don’t want soldiers to leave. And even residents of Toribío fear they would be overrun by guerrillas and criminals if the Indigenous Guard only used sticks to defend it.
“The Nasa are a very small David facing a huge Goliath,” said Antonio Bonanomi, a Catholic priest who worked in Toribío for two decades. “They know they can’t force the police or the guerrillas out right now. But the fact that they’ve raised their voice and are attracting attention is something of a miracle.”
As Acosta sat on a curbside monitoring a radio, news came that a member of the Indigenous Guard had been wounded in a nearby town. Over the last decade, at least 16 guard members have been killed. He said the red and green tassels on their bastones are a constant reminder: Green is for the land they defend and red is for the blood they’ve spilled.